Sámi National Day celebration at the University of Helsinki

The history of Sámi National Day dates back to 1917, when the first Sámi Assembly was held in Trondheim, Norway. Decades later, in 1992, the Helsinki Sámi Conference decided to celebrate Sámi National Day on 6th of February, commemorating that first Sámi meeting.

This year again, the University of Helsinki celebrated the day by gathering in front of the Porthania to raise the Sámi flag, listen to speeches and sing the Sámi national anthem together. Later, the celebration continued at Porthania with a powerful performance of yoik music by Sámi musician Tuuni Partti and a documentary film on Sámi fishing rights, Ruoktojohka.   

Sámi games researcher and HELSUS member Outi Laiti helped organising the celebration event.

– Celebrating and supporting Sámi culture in the university community is an important step towards a more diverse, inclusive and just society, as it creates a sense of community and belonging. We are the university, including the Sámi, and celebrating together provides an opportunity to share knowledge and learn from each other, she says.   

Sámi reseach and indigenous studies are intertwined with sustainability

Sámi language has been taught at the University of Helsinki since the 1890s as part of the Finno-Ugric languages and can still be studied today in the Faculty of Humanities. Sámi studies and indigenous studies are important fields of research at the university of Helsinki, which are also linked to sustainability science. The methodologies of indigenous studies bring new perspectives to the science that differ from the Western perspective, and these perspectives can help to broaden our understanding of current sustainability issues.  

The traditional way of life and culture of the Sámi people are strongly linked to the natural environment of the Arctic, where fragile and unique ecosystems are threatened by climate change and biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss affects hunting and fishing, and the green transition has brought industrial areas and wind power plants to Sámi areas, irreversibly affecting the fragile ecosystems of the region.

In the midst of environmental change and the green transition, it is therefore necessary to ensure the ecological, economic, cultural and social sustainability of the Sámi people and the Sámi territory. Developments that undermine the potential of traditional Sámi livelihoods also create uncertainty for Sámi youth who wish to continue and maintain their culture.  

Researchers focusing on the Arctic and indigenous peoples are seeking answers to the question of how to manage and enable sustainability transitions in a way that ensures ecological sustainability and social justice. Therefore, working with the Sámi people in an ethical manner is essential.  

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, Professor of Indigenous Studies and founding member of HELSUS, co-organised the celebration of the Sámi National Day. She has been involved in drafting the new ethical guidelines for conducting research on the Sámi people. For Virtanen, it is very important that Sámi and Sámi knowledge is part of academics and science today. Research that is being done nowadays is more ethical and sustainable and aims to support Sámi society.

– Science is important for promoting the cultural self-determination of the Sámi people, and it is also centrally linked to their future and future generations. 

The important role of the university in the Sámi rights and a successful dialogue

Ilona Kivinen, a Sámi university teacher and organiser of the event, said that universities have an important role to play in bringing Sámi languages and cultures to the forefront, especially as there are no universities in the Sámi regions of Finland.

– When Sámi languages and cultures are made visible at the university, the rights of the Sámi people are also made visible. This is particularly important at the University of Helsinki, as Finland's decision-making bodies are located in the capital city, so the distance to the decision-makers is shorter.

When it comes to discussions between the university, the Sámi and the decision-makers, the university has an important role in creating a successful dialogue.The Sámi can bring forward problems and environmental changes that they face to our attention more easily as well as share traditional knowledge and practices that can help to find the right solutions. Successful dialogues enable us to find better answers to continuous questions such as how to protect the environment without trampling on the rights of the Sámi people.   

There is still room for improvement, both in legislation and within the university. Kivinen hopes that the visibility of the Sámi languages at the university would be better.

– I would like the university community to be boldly multilingual, and multilingualism does not mean switching only to English. The university's role is to support all the languages that are spoken, and it is important to pay special attention to minority languages, Sámi languages and indigenous languages, Kivinen says.  

How can people at the university contribute to the debate on Sámi rights? Laiti comments that through various seminars, lectures and also National Day celebrations, it is possible to raise topical issues from the Sámi perspective, as long as we remember to create safe and inclusive spaces for discussions. Laiti also points out that defenders of Sámi rights are often also defenders of the environment, as Sámi rights and environmental protection are parallel objectives.   

Finally, Laiti would like to remind us all that everyone can support the vitality of Sámi culture throughout the year with their everyday actions, for example by reading and referring to research done by the Sámi, watching Sámi films, listening to music, or even playing games made by the Sámi.

The University of Helsinki's Sami Studies has been organising the Sámi National Day celebrations since 1993, and in 2016 the Global Indigenous Studies joined in as an organiser. This year, the University of Helsinki's Institute for Sustainability Studies, HELSUS, supported the event with a Sustainability Initiative Grant.